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The Sacred Cow & the Bone-Setter’s Emporium

A Traveller's Tale by Carol Buxton

I realised that it was a bad shoe day seconds before my face hit the pavement and blood splattered across my left hand lying palm-down beside it. The slip-on sandals hadn’t moved with my feet as I tried to pivot ninety degrees, flailing at anything that might save my fall. Nothing did. Winded, I lay sprawled across an open drain, while my assailant moved slowly away. Then the hubbub began: somebody called for my husband, and our lovely Indian guide was saying ‘here, take my hands’. I was in the small town of Bundi, northwest India. My assailant? A doe-eyed cow that had tossed its head in a more ludic than aggressive gesture, and knocked me off balance as I passed.

The cow is a sacred animal for most of the 1,000 million Hindus in India and cannot be slaughtered when its productive life ceases. Although the government provides Goshalas, sanctuaries where cows can live out their natural lives, many farmers are unwilling, or unable, to pay the 500 Rupees (about $7) to leave them there. Nearly 6 million cows roam freely on India’s roads, creating traffic and public health issues.

A few locals took photographs as I was helped to my feet, blood dripping from a laceration on my chin. One of my tour group produced a First Aid kit, cleaned the wound and stuck the laceration in place with a sterile strip. A searing pain shot along my jaw as I tried to speak and I knew at once that it was broken, later confirmed when I tried to chew and could hear the bones grinding together.

I began to contemplate the Indian healthcare system, which I knew incorporated Western drugs and procedures, but that the majority of Indians consulted practitioners of traditional medicine, not all of whom are licensed, for day-to-day health problems. Perhaps this was why our Indian guide quietly stressed that it would not be in my best interest to consult a local practitioner, should I feel able to travel to our next destination, a 7-hour drive away. With frequent blood-mopping, the flow was stemmed and we eventually arrived in the city of Gwalior.

Next morning my right arm, which had buckled under me as I fell, was painful and swollen. I envisaged taking a taxi to a hospital, but our Tour Leader would have none of it: I was to use the hotel car to see an orthopaedic specialist accompanied, bizarrely, by the hotel’s Executive Chef, who spoke perfect English and knew the doctor well.

The car took us into the cacophonous city to what looked like a small shop but was, in fact, a medical practice. I removed my shoes and stepped into Dr Goenka’s consulting room. He palpated my arm, causing little pain, and decided that an X-ray would be conclusive. For this I was driven up the street to another small ‘shop’ marked ‘Radiology’, where I was swept past a line of waiting patients to the X-ray room at the rear. It was a little larger than the X-ray table itself, with just enough room to squeeze a pile of boxes into one corner, disgorging clothing that could have been the laundry.

I returned to the waiting area, a small space with a door open to the street and what appeared to be a large cabinet in the centre. Two walls were lined with benches, on which sat men in dusty workmen’s clothes. A lanky boy sat sideways, his foot propped on a pile of old newspapers, knee raised. I squeezed onto an end, trying to make myself smaller. Silence settled over the room like a cloud, and everyone looked at me. Beads of sweat formed on my forehead and more trickled down the nape of my neck. My forearm throbbed and I felt suddenly nervous.

A few minutes passed before a large man emerged from the cabinet flourishing my X-rays. ‘Madam, good news: no breaks, no breaks at all’. A report was swiftly written, placed in a folder with the X-rays and I was discharged back to Dr Goenka, who bound my arm in a compression bandage and supported it in a sling. My self-diagnosed broken jaw was not discussed: that would wait for a maxillofacial surgeon back home in the weeks to come. He thought a fine job had been done with the laceration, so he cleaned it and covered it with a protective dressing. A mouse ran from under my chair, across the room and out into the sunshine.

I was given a prescription and directed across the road to a dispensary, which was also a pet shop, where I received three small brown paper bags containing drugs, each with dosage instructions written in pencil. I was perturbed that both practitioners and the pharmacist would accept only cash payment, as we had just a handful of rupees between us. The Executive Chef said not to worry, as he had paid the bills and we could reimburse him later, so the car took us first to an ATM machine and then back to the hotel. Here I made a slight bow to the Executive Chef, saying ‘Namaste’, pressing my palms together, fingers pointing upwards, and thumbs close to my heart. In Hinduism this gesture means ‘I bow to the divine in you’ and I really, really meant it.


About the Author

Carol decided to become a writer at the age of six, but more practical roles took precedence. Taking early retirement from charity administration, she gained a degree in English Studies & Creative Writing at Ruskin College, Oxford, and a Masters in English Literature from King’s College, London, which rekindled this early ambition.

An avid traveller, she likes to combine travelling with her passion for listening to, and performing, classical music.


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